Celtic Illumination, part 274, Careful now!
I have to admit that after about five minutes in Warrenpoint I find that all the weight and worries of the world slip away. For me it really is similar to the ‘restore to factory settings’ function. It is impossible to walk along a street and meet someone and not say hello, or good morning or good afternoon, and sure if you even know the person you will stop and have a chat. By tea time on the Saturday we had worn the children out, we could tell this by their open mouths and open eyes, I only hoped that their little minds had opened too. They were to be left with their grandmother for the evening, which would mean an evening of stories and song.
Irene and I were off down the street to meet the boys. Meet the boys is of course a generic term as ‘the boys’ would have their partners with them. I hadn’t given one thought to my predicament back in England, which was mainly not having a job. One option many people have, who leaves any flavour of armed force, is to join the police or prison service. There are a couple of positive points that go along with these options, in that any time served in the armed forces is credited by either the police or prison service so that you do not start your new career from the bottom rung of the ladder. The second point is that you are employed in a structured and disciplined environment that you have experience of. Third is that you get paid well and of course the forth is that if your head is screwed on you don’t have to really do any work for the remainder of your life.
I knew that one option for me would be to join either the police force or the prison service, which would give me a well-paid position but allow me to return to Northern Ireland. Phelim and I had gone to the bar to buy some drinks and we were having a quick chat as we waited. Phelim asked me if I was considering coming home in the near future. I said that I could think of nothing else. He asked what I thought I would do, as a job. Phelim would have been my best friend in the world so I said to him that I was thinking about joining the police or the prison service. Phelim just looked at me and said, “You wouldn’t want to be doing that now, would you?” It wasn’t a threat; it was a statement of fact, and Phelim’s understanding of the current situation in Northern Ireland at that time.
It didn’t matter that the police and prison service were actively encouraging people from the republican side of the fence to join their ranks and balance out what had been a one sided force. I was still slightly on edge in Warrenpoint as in you were very careful where you chose to sit, you always had one eye on the door and, despite the fact that you were involved in the conversation around your table, you were still trying to listen to everything else that was going on around you. I already knew that If I did join the police or prison service in Northern Ireland I would be looking over my shoulder for the remainder of my life, however long that might be. Phelim and I continued to chat; I knew that his statement, or comment, was not a direct insult or threat to me but that he was simply reminding me that if someone like me joined the police or prison service it would not be tolerated. There was nothing more to be said.
Being good ol boys, the chat turned to motorcars and Phelim wanted to know what I was driving. I did have a car, my old Volvo, but it was under a tarpaulin at the side of the house. As I had been driving company cars for some time I had kept my old car, as you never knew when you might need it. Unfortunately it could not be legally driven on the roads, as it wasn’t taxed or insured, so I would have to sort that out when I returned to England. I heard myself become quite grand , almost puffing my chest out, becoming English if you like, as I said “Oh I’m driving a Volvo.” In England you would have expected whoever you were talking to, to be impressed. Driving a Volvo meant that you had class and taste, but this was Warrenpoint and this was a good ol boy. Pretence wasn’t a part of his vocabulary.
“What the hell are you driving one of them for?” asked Phelim in such a straight forward and honest way that I immediately felt such an idiot. I had thought that I had managed to steer myself away from the British class game of one-upmanship and to my shame I had discovered that I had fallen for it, as they say, hook, line and sinker. “Why don’t you get one of them Toyota’s, good value for money and they never break down,” said Phelim, and I knew that I missed the honesty of the good ol boys. The warning about the police and prison service was simply a reminder of who I was and what was expected of me, so were the comments about the car.
I had never been so pleased about coming home before because I could now see that my search for a career or job back in England didn’t have a solid foundation. I was still being fooled by the terminology, the executive company car, being a professional, after four weeks training. In my desperation to not succeed but to become successful I had joined in their games and played along.
Even poor old Irene was in for a dose of truth from the good ol boys and like myself I promise you she remembers every word that was said to her that evening. Irene decided that she needed to visit the ladies rest room. She stood and began to walk towards the ladies. This was Warrenpoint and these were good old boys, they said what they thought. So, as Irene is walking away from us Peter Rogan says “Jeez boy, there’s a fine arse on that.”
If I were to translate that statement into English it would run something along the lines of, “I say old boy, your wife has a very pretty bottom.” These statements would of course be standard sayings to any lady they associated with, but Irene had never come across such vocal attentions before and I can assure you she didn’t know whether to blush or smile and even to this day, if I mention that phrase, she will break in to a smile. The evening was a great success with us jiving away into the wee small hours. Sunday is a much slower pace of life in Ireland. Some people go to church on Sunday morning as my mother did, dragging all the children off to see their great Uncle Seamus officiate. Irene and I chose the other way to spend Sunday morning which was to visit a hotel and spend an hour sipping away at the hair of the dog.
It was only a flying visit as we were to return on the Sunday evening boat from Belfast. Phelim and Peter had promised to return us to Belfast and we expected them to turn up about six o clock in the evening. They turned up about four o clock and when I say they, I mean Phelim and someone else turned up. At least this time they hadn’t turned up in the Sinn Fein mini bus, which, as it was Sunday, would be being used by the families of the IRA prisoners and would mean that I didn’t have to feel that I was sitting in the middle of a moving target while driving through unionist Belfast. This time they had turned up in a Mercedes limousine and I saw that the driver was a fellow known as Metal Mickey.
He was called Metal Mickey because he had lost his left leg in a bomb incident. In a way it was good that our departure was hurried up as there was no time for hanging about and dragging out goodbyes. As we moved off, Phelim couldn’t apologise enough for turning up early but he explained that the minibus was being used and they needed the car that evening for a couple of runs across the border. God knows what they were smuggling, I wasn’t going to ask, I was grateful for the lift. As we drove along Metal Mickey began to chat to me. We had known each other for some time, so there was a sort of trust there. “Phelim tells me that you’re thinking about coming home?” said Metal Mickey. “Aye,” says I. “He also says you are a wee bit worried about what sort of welcome you might receive?” says Metal Mickey, and I respond with the usual “Aye.” “Well listen,” says Metal Mickey. “You can have it on good authority that you and your family will be safe, you’re one of us, and you’re welcome home anytime you want.”
“Great,” says I, adding “Thanks very much.” Irene unfortunately didn’t know Metal Mickey, she was aware that my military service could cause me problems from the republican element back home so she quite naturally asked Metal Mickey. “And who are you to say such things or give such guarantees?” It was the look that Phelim gave me that told me I should explain just exactly who Metal Mickey was and why he could give such assurances. It was probably my fault in the first place for not going through proper introductions, but there were certain things you just didn’t say. I chose my words very carefully for not only did I have to explain exactly who Metal Mickey was to Irene, I also had to show some respect, so I explained as best as I could that we were being driven to the docks in Belfast by the head of the IRA in the South Down area.